The Duke lacks a clear head

B Historical drama-comedy
Written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
Directed by Roger Michell

Note: This review has nothing to do with SFFilm or any other current festival. I also corrected an error in the paragraph below.

Kempton Bunton may have thought of himself as a British Gandhi, going to prison for his beliefs. But he wasn’t trying to free a nation. He merely wanted to remove the tax that brought revenue to the PBS  BBC – at least for the elderly. As played by Jim Broadbent, he’s a man without a clear head.

In 1961, with the help of his son, Bunton stole Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery (there’s a joke about that robbery in Dr. No). For years, he sent ransom notes to the government, calling for better care for the aged. Father and son do all this while hiding it to Bunton’s wife, Dorothy, played by the always wonderful Helen Mirren.

The Duke is based on actual events. Kempton Bunton was a real man who died in 1976. I do not know how much the film follows actual history, and I don’t care. The Duke is not a documentary. I suspect that the climax is largely fictional. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “God never wrote a good play in his life.”

Broadbent plays Bunton as a holy fool. When the father and son wonder how to hide the painting, father remarks that they need Jesus’ help – because Jesus was a carpenter. Among other things, Bunton is an unproduced playwright, with his most recent failure being called The Adventures of Susan Christ.

Although he’s well into his ’60s, Bunton doesn’t seem to know the worst in other people. Working on a bakery assembly line, he discovers – to his great surprise – that his boss is a racist.

According to the film, Bunton had serious tragedy in his life. His daughter was killed in a bike accident years before the events in the film happened. Great sadness covers their apartment, but deep love helps them get through.

Director Roger Michell uses cinematic tricks that remind you (if you’re old enough) of the swinging London of the 1960s. Split screens frequently pop up, with jazzy music. It doesn’t always work.

Why is it called The Duke? After all, the painting is basically a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. My guess: The simple Bunton Kempton has more humanity than any aristocrat by birth.

The Duke opens at the Opera Plaza on Friday, April 29. It will open in many more theaters a week later.